Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact

In the era surrounding the second World War, in England, there lived a brilliant man who happened to be a homosexual. Unfortunately, this man had a weakness for at least one mimbo – a younger man who seemed at best cute and clueless and at worst shallow and self-involved. Unfortunately, because in the course of their relationship, our genius had his apartment burgled by some acquaintances of the younger man (allegedly). Besides being a wet blanket on the love affair, the turn of events presented a peculiar legal problem for the crime’s victim. In providing evidence to the police, he would have to admit the nature of his relationship with the other man. Our protagonist was not particularly ashamed of his sexual orientation, and his friends and family would not shun him if the information became public. But the admission would run him afoul of a “buggery law” – an appropriately nasty name for a class of regulation which forbade homosexual behavior under the same criminal statute as child molestation.
The technical offense in question is moral turpitude. The term refers to acts of depravity and appears to turn on something like Kant’s admonition not to use people solely as means. Gay sex can’t result in progeny so it must be undertaken for gratification alone, which would place homosexuals squarely in the category of users of other people. Anyway, this is the charge which was successfully prosecuted in the case of our man, Alan Turing. The sentence was ablation of Turing’s libido by high dose injection of estrogen. Any hormone which acts on the central nervous system can produce mood disturbances at pharmacologic doses, and the injections likely contributed to Turing’s death by poisoned apple two years after his conviction.
It’s likely others shared a similar fate under the same law, but Turing’s ordeal is remembered because he is justifiably regarded as an exceptional fellow. He was fascinated with mathematics and logic and achieved great things in those fields. His name identifies the Universal Turing Machine and the Turing Test. The latter has enduring currency. Turing would probably be pleased, because he seemed to be particularly invested in how we might know about and model our own mental processes. His test is an elegant statement on the subject.
He called it the Imitation Game. A computer and a person are sequestered in a room, each with a connection to an interrogator on the other side of the wall. The interrogator then fires questions at the man and the machine, trying to sort out, based on their responses, which is which. If the interrogator cannot make the distinction, then we must admit that the computer appears to think. If we deny that conclusion, then what are we to say of the other fellow?
Now, it’s understandable that modern lawmakers began to regret their predecessors’ having destroyed a man of such capability in the name of stamping out buggery. Eventually, some proposed a pardon. However, the justice minister, a certain Lord McNally, objected. Read in whole, Lord McNally’s statement of opposition is quite sympathetic. His objection does not rest on Turing’s having gotten what he deserved or a nihilistic contention that the times were different and the law was right for them. Per McNally, Turing must not be pardoned because The Law must be upheld. In other words, Law and therefore any individual law, means something in and of itself.
The viewpoint espoused in the objection to pardoning Turing sees laws operating on two levels. There is a functional level, as in the laws which enforce contracts. If a contract has no guarantee of enforcement, it is no longer functional as a contract and no one will have a use for it. Then, there is a prescriptive level. On this level the Law pursues a state of affairs which we think ought to prevail in society. We have in mind a model of a preferred set of relationships when we construct laws with prescriptive intent and the laws represent the principles of those relationships. People should not simply use other people, so law should prohibit purely selfish sex acts.
Law has always been tangled up with morality and here is the point of entanglement. Law apes morality on the prescriptive level. Moral assessments are not merely descriptive, they are also prescriptive by definition. There is a difference in saying something is in good working order and saying that something is good. The difference is summarized in a saying which has come to be called Hume’s Law: You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, or more precisely you can’t derive an ought exclusively from an is. Facts in the world can’t, by themselves, tell us what we ought to do; we need valuations as well, and those are intrinsic to the evaluator. Yet values refer to facts. When a person says that they value kindness or abhor violence, they mean kindness toward feeling entities or violent relations with the same, not kindness toward clothing or violent relations with baseballs. Values are properties of relationships between the evaluator and the facts. Our moral prescriptions are the theories or models of those properties. Even when we say something so vague as, “Be kind to others.”, we imagine the listener maneuvering their way in the world with the purpose of establishing a certain quality of relationship with others. Note that the source of these properties is irrelevant. The values may attach to our relationships developmentally, as brute fact, or by the stamp of God. Like all properties, we will be concerned with how they are rather than where they come from.
Prescriptions need facts and relational properties among those facts to get going. The statement, “I ought to keep my promises” represents a model of the world which favors a specific set of relationships exhibiting the quality of respect (to be preferred because the Lord loves respect, respect is a preferable quality – period, or respectful relations have a salutary effect such that nature has selected a respect-preference in us; it doesn’t matter). The prescription is not the value itself. The value isn’t a thing at all, it is a property of the promise keeping. Whatever I say I ought to do, I must still keep my specific promise to my wife to be home on Tuesday. Furthermore, to employ the prescription properly in that case, I must live up to the expectation of exemplifying respect in my promise keeping. I’m violating the prescription if I “lawyer up” by rolling through the door at 11:59 PM on Tuesday night, throwing my dirty gear on the floor and flopping into bed.
An understanding of moral statements, and their prescriptive component in particular, as representations makes Turing’s conviction and McNally’s subsequent objection to Turing’s pardon, ironic. Turing’s Imitation Game plays on just what we can make of our representations. At the conclusion, if the computer can’t be distinguished from the human correspondent, we are not forced to admit that the computer thinks; we are forced to admit that it appears to think. In the process, we are forced to admit that, though computing may or may not be an complete model of our mental processes, it may be the best that we can do because we couldn’t know if we’d done better. In a compound irony, the full implications of Turing’s test, in principle and for his treatment under the law, were developed in response to an over-interpretation of his test.
As computing progressed from the rudimentary technology of Turing’s day to a period of exponential growth, researchers in the field began to think that they might be able to construct a computer that thought and know it. They either proposed or implied that a version of Turing’s Imitation Game might give them proof of success when it came. The response came from the philosopher John Searle, who devised a thought experiment which has become one of the most famous of all time: the Chinese Room.
We are asked to imagine a man sequestered in a room, much like the participants in the Imitation Game, with a detailed set of ‘if-then’ instructions. On one side of the room, is a letter-box through which questions written in Chinese characters come into the room. On the other side, is another letter-box for the man to pass out the answer, which he constructs based on the appearance and order of the characters on the papers passed in to him, with reference to the detailed instructions in his book. The task is feasible, even if the man has never seen a Chinese character before in his life.
In the course of the experiment the man does not learn to understand Chinese. The point being, representations serve their meanings, they do not make meaning themselves. This holds for our moral representations as well. Lord McNally made a well-intentioned mistake. The law serves the properties of relations – our values. The Law does not make values it represents them. It is the same mistake made in the original conviction. The law could, by itself, determine nothing about the properties of Turing’s “buggery”. Perhaps those who make such laws view them as a sort of Imitation Game, where the behaviors in question look like behaviors which necessarily exemplify certain properties to be valued or condemned. If so, they make the mistake, in strictly legislating for or against the behaviors, which the Chinese Room illustrates.
The case is no different in moral law than in statutory law. Objective moral systems make the same mistake. By taking values as things rather than properties and prescriptive models as real, values are unmoored from their subjects and become scribbled papers moving through the moral system. We have goodness, not as a category containing all those preferable properties of relations, but a thing which seems to alight hither and yon in sweetness, pleasure, or promise-keeping. It is no wonder when we open our hands, thinking we have goodness, we find only sweetness, pleasure or respect.
The converse landed on Alan Turing. In a reversal of fortune characteristic of moral realism, he was treated for homosexuality and a representation of Kant’s dictum not to treat people solely as means, taken as real, made an instrument of a man. To realize the statutory representation of a moral prescription, Turing was altered to fit the purported fact: homosexual activity is bad and one ought not do it. This is a pathology characteristic of moral realism. In the same way, when a blasphemer is stoned to death, a representation of personal integrity, taken as real, demands the disintegration of a person. The alternative is a morality which is seen to be about its subjects rather than about itself. Not a moral nihilism which claims that good and bad are nonsense, but a moral subjectivism which reminds us that good and bad are adjectives – properties not facts. As it turns out then, a pardon for Turing was in order, but not a pardon by way of apology. Lord McNally was right about that. Instead, Turing deserved a pardon by way of admission of a mistake, for he was the victim of an improper conviction – the conviction that there are moral facts which need reconciled. However, the required pardon may still be beyond a legislature’s power, for the mistake in question is a much bigger, broader flub than an error of prosecution.

Tagged , , , ,

2 thoughts on “Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact

  1. We might not agree on everything regarding moral realism but with quotes like this:

    “Law apes morality”

    I will keep reading your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: